How ancient Greek mythology can explain Greece’s modern-day debt crisis


Greece's dramatic debt crisis has drawn media attention from the world over, as the depression-racked country flirts with bankruptcy and a possible exit from the euro currency.

Inevitably, reporters and editors (including those at this newspaper) have reached for their dog-eared school copies of tales from ancient Greek history and mythology to describe events in the modern-day Hellenic Republic. Had the government in Athens been entitled to royalties for such references and allusions, it would have harvested a tidy sum by now to help pay off its debts.

Here's a primer on some of the more popular usages and their back (way, way back) stories:

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras successfully persuaded his fellow Greeks to reject austerity measures in a recent referendum, but it was a "Pyrrhic victory" since he now faces an even more devastated economy and deeper austerity cuts.

An AD 1st century bust of Pyrrhus from Villa of the Papyri in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. (Dea A. Dagli Orti / De Agostini/Getty Images)

The phrase, about a victory won at too great a cost, refers to King Pyrrhus of Epirus' subduing of Roman forces in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC. After losing a staggering number of men, Pyrrhus is alleged to have said that another such "victory" would ruin him.

During marathon (another Greek reference) negotiations with other European leaders, Tsipras was said to be caught "between Scylla and Charybdis," made to choose between a bailout with punishing terms or a disastrous ejection from the Eurozone, the club of 19 nations that use the euro.

An engraving by Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839) shows a ship passing between the sea monsters Scylla, left, and Charybdis. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

Scylla and Charybdis were sea monsters who assumed the forms of a rocky shoal and a whirlpool respectively on either side of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Sailors such as Odysseus, in Homer's "Odyssey," had to pick which one to confront in the narrow channel — in essence, a choice between two unpalatable options. In English, "between a rock and a hard place" is a rough equivalent.

Against his own party's ideals, Tsipras has now committed himself to more "draconian" budget cuts, with Greece forced to carry out the "Sisyphean task" of ever-increasing austerity.

A relief found in an ancient storehouse near Paestum, Campania, Italy, depicts Sisyphus pushing the boulder while being hampered by a winged demon. (Museo Archeologico Nazionale / DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In Athenian history, Draco was a politician who codified the city-state's laws in the 7th century BC, but the punishments, though impartial, were resented as overly harsh. According to Greek myth, the gods condemned Sisyphus, the ruthless king of Corinth, to the fruitless, never-ending task of rolling a heavy stone up a hill only for it to roll back down again.

To qualify for a third international bailout, Greece must adopt the "Procrustean" reforms, such as liberalizing closed professions and loosening labor rules, that economic powerhouse Germany insists are the path to success for all Eurozone countries.

Procrustes was a giant who stretched or lopped off the limbs of his captives so that the helpless victims would exactly span the length of his bed, a cruel one-size-fits-all approach that made no allowances for individual differences or unusual circumstances. A "Procrustean bed" is an arbitrary standard to which everyone must conform, however painful.

Ridding Greece of its endemic political patronage and corruption will take a "Herculean effort," similar to cleaning the "Augean stables."

Of the 12 "labors" set for the mighty hero Hercules, the smelliest was to flush out, in a single day, the stables where King Augeas kept thousands of cattle, which some versions of the story say hadn't been cleaned for 30 years. Using brains and brawn, Hercules tore through a stable wall, then dug trenches for two nearby rivers to surge through and sluice away the muck.

Greek banks, which shut their doors for three weeks because the European Central Bank capped their emergency funding and raised its collateral requirements, will have to apply, like Telephus, to the central bank to help rescue them when they resume full operation again.

A 1st century BC relief found in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum depicts Achilles, second from right, scraping the spear that hurt Telephus into the wound to heal it. (Dea L. Pedicini / De Agostini/Getty Images)

Telephus, the king of Mysia, was wounded by the warrior Achilles in battle. In an unfortunate irony, an oracle told Telephus that only the person who inflicted the wound had the power to heal it.

Despite the threat of eviction from the Eurozone and even the wider European Union, many Greeks say that the idea of a united Europe is inconceivable without their country's participation, since Greece gave the continent its name, from "Europa."

"The Rape of Europa," a painting by Francesco Zuccarelli (1702–1788). (Dea Picture Library / De Agostini/Getty Images)

Europa was a Phoenician princess of such astonishing beauty that Zeus, disguised as a white bull, spirited her off to Crete and had three children by her. How willing or happy she was varies in the telling, but the "Rape of Europa" is a common theme in Renaissance painting. "Europe" as a place name in English occurs as far back as the Old English period more than 1,000 years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As Greece submits to the Eurozone's dictates and surrenders some of its national sovereignty, remember what happened to the poor island state of Melos in 416 BC during the Peloponnesian War.

During the bloody decades-long war between Athens and Sparta, the island of Melos tried to maintain neutrality. Athens insisted that Melos join its alliance, noting threateningly that the powerful do what they want and the weak must accept it, according to the historian Thucydides in his famous "Melian Dialogue." When the leaders of Melos refused, the Athenians slaughtered the island's men and sold its women and children into slavery.

Twitter: @HenryHChu